Matt Bruenig argues that redistribution is a meaningless term while only distribution itself exists, and Forbes’ Adam Ozimek responds.
Matt Bruenig’s understanding of property clearly goes far beyond any ideology, and he’s done quite a bit of work recently on the universal basis for how we tend to think about property rights.
“…there is no baseline default distribution against which we can measure redistribution. Instead, there are a multiplicity of possible distributions, none of which is more natural, or less interventionist, or whatever than any other. All of these possible distributions can, in a sense, be called redistributive relative to all the other possible distributions. But calling them redistributive tells us nothing more than that they differ from each other.”
His point here isn’t particularly controversial as long as certain assumptions aren’t in play, namely that distribution isn’t inherently natural. But, of course, this challenges the basic framework of capitalist ideology. Adam Ozimek, for example, isn’t buying it:
“First, it is true that no distributions is commanded by the fabric of the universe. But it also seems pretty obvious to me that the basic concept of private property is a social construct rather than a government one. Now private property in a modern society does require government in order to function well. After all, the social construct of private property is a basic one, and in the real world laws need to be precise and often complex. Furthermore it is in many instances beneficial for everyone to limit private property for the greater good. But private property is not a government created construct, it is a social construct. And this social construct often does provide us with a default form of economic institutions.”
In a blog post, Bruenig responded and points out the obvious: it’s not exactly relevant to find the discrepancy between a government construct and a social construct when it comes to property relations. But let’s say there’s actually a difference, and then the protection of private property becomes a priority of government because it’s a social construct. Here there’s a certain order of operations, a concept of John Locke’s, that’s worth a close look.
If private property is indeed natural to human circumstances and that’s the premise, then the defense of property is going to be valued by everyone with property at virtually any level. This is the state of nature. However, there comes a point when the state of nature provides for vast inequality through development, and Locke’s observation remains perfectly correct; the inequality will lead to jealousy and a call for economic fairness by those who have less property. Therefore, what’s needed is a central governing apparatus, a state, to protect what Madison called “the minority of the opulent from the majority”, because the minority can’t possibly protect its exceedingly unequal property by itself. Thus, in the state of nature prior to this overwhelming inequality which creates class conflict, a state with the power to protect private property is wholly unnecessary, as there’s no need to protect something that’s not being threatened.
As we all know, it’s not the state of nature anymore. It wasn’t in 1785, and it’s not now. So if Ozimek wants to make the case that property as a social construct is diametrically different than a government construct, he may want to observe the order of operations first. Upon doing so, Bruenig’s point becomes pretty clear: there’s just no significance to this rebuttal.